U.S. Water News Online
SHARON SPRINGS, Kan. -- At age 12, Bill Mai was old enough
to help move irrigation pipe at the family farm near Sharon Springs.
That was back in 1948, when his father took out the first water right
in southeast Wallace County.
They drilled down nearly 105 feet to tap into the Ogallala
Aquifer, the bottom of which reached 220 feet below the Kansas
Now 65, Mai owns that old water right. But the water table has
dropped to 175 feet at the family homestead.
Last year alone, water levels fell another 2 to 3 feet -- even
though Mai stopped irrigating two years ago and went to dryland crops
and no-till farming. His neighbors still irrigate their fields.
``We shut down our wells because of the fact we know we can't keep
pumping and have water left over for drinking, eventually,'' he said.
``We have done this in my lifetime.''
In arid western Kansas, the fertile prairie has been transformed
into an oasis of sorts since the introduction of irrigation
technologies after World War II. By the 1970s, most of the water had
been appropriated and an agribusiness industry based on irrigation
Scores of feedlots and meatpacking plants moved in, leading to an
unprecedented period of population growth and economic expansion.
From the air, the green crop circles formed by spewing center
irrigation pivots are said to outline the boundaries of the Ogallala
Aquifer almost as precisely as any geologist.
``Water is the central fact of life in western Kansas,'' said
Kansas State University researcher Dave Kromm. ``It permeates
everything within the society because it is the scarce commodity.
There is an abundance of space, an abundance of land, an abundance of
fertility. But there is a scarcity of water.''
Mai is not alone in his alarm over dwindling water supplies.
Nowhere is that change more dramatic than in Wichita County.
Twenty years ago, about 100,000 acres were under irrigation in the
county. Today, the number of irrigated acres in the county has
dropped to 40,000.
``It is that significant,'' Kromm said. ''... That is the poster
child of groundwater decline in western Kansas.''
The Kansas Geological Survey, as part of its High Plains Aquifer
Atlas, has put together a map showing depletion of the aquifer in
The data indicates parts of the Ogallala aquifer will be used up
within the next 25 years and vast tracts of land will have no usable
groundwater in the next 50 to 100 years. Some areas, such as rivers
and sandy parts where there is limited recharge, will last longer.
``If things continue, over the next 100 years irrigated
agriculture in southwest Kansas will no longer be in existence,''
said Joe Aistrup, director of the Docking Institute of Public Affairs
at Fort Hays State University.
Farmers will return to dryland farming practices. Some cropland
will revert to grasslands for cattle.
``What I would like to do is avoid that future,'' Aistrup said.
More efficient irrigation technologies -- such as subsurface drip
irrigation and low-pressure irrigation pivots that conserve water --
are now available. Better drought-tolerant crop varieties are being
developed. And high energy prices to pump water from ever deeper
wells is driving farmers to conserve more water and rethink
Mai said it was costing him so much to irrigate his corn that he
actually made more money off his lower yielding dryland corn acres.
Two years ago he put his water rights into the state water
conservation reserve program and went entirely to dryland corn and
Under the reserve program, farmers promise to not use the water
and in return their water rights are preserved, Mai said. Otherwise,
Kansas law terminates a farmer's water right after three years of
``What is next is that there is going to be a greater interest in
water conservation in order to make farm practices economically
viable,'' Kromm said. ``The cost of applying water at the rate we
have now is untenable under today's energy prices -- and they are not
going to get better, not better enough.''
Even if there is not enough water to grow additional crops, it
should not dismantle the region's feedlots and meat packing industry
because grain can be shipped in, he said.
``People adjust well, they adjust to change remarkably well,''
Kromm said. ``We have to remember 70 years ago the Dust Bowl was just
getting started out there and there was a period of depopulation in
Today, western Kansas is more prosperous than ever.
Kromm predicts that the search for more efficient irrigation will
accelerate and overall water will decline in western Kansas.
``You not only extend the life of the aquifer so you can measure
it in centuries, instead of decades,'' he said, ``but you free water
for other uses.''
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